As fighting heats up between rival armed groups and Russia increases its involvement, a power vacuum threatens to tear the country apart.
The new year seems to have brought one piece of bad news after another for Libya, threatening to mark a new phase in the country’s endless slide into chaos. Hopes that last year’s defeat of the Islamic State in its self-proclaimed “emirate” in Sirte would usher in a period of relative calm have been dashed, as fighting has escalated recently in four different parts of the country.
The “oil crescent” east of Sirte, where 60 percent of Libya’s oil production transits, in March twice changed hands between the anti-Islamist Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar — a former Qaddafi-era officer who turned against the dictator and whose forces currently dominate the east — and the U.N.-backed Presidency Council, a collective head of state that sits in the capital of Tripoli, where militias nominally loyal to the council fight against rival groups — and increasingly among themselves. In the south, Haftar’s LNA has repeatedly clashed with armed groups from the coastal city of Misrata. And in the east, since 2014, fighting between the LNA and local Islamist Shura Councils in Benghazi and in Derna has never really ended.
Since 2014, the country has been split between rival governments: one in the east and two in Tripoli. In May of that year, then-Gen. Haftar started Operation Dignity, an anti-Islamist insurgency that initially focused on the eastern city of Benghazi. A month later, a coalition of militias from cities in western Libya formed Libya Dawn and conquered Tripoli. The conflict between the forces that defeated Muammar al-Qaddafi has since devolved into a bitter struggle for power, resources, and control of the country’s sprawling security sector.
In December 2015, the mediation of the U.N. mission in Libya (UNSMIL) led to the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement, which aimed to form a national unity government, by rival members of parliament from eastern and western Libya. But while UNSMIL is tasked with negotiating the implementation of the agreement, it is now effectively headless. The mandate of the current U.N. special representative for Libya, Martin Kobler, came to an end this month, and he lost the trust of key players in Libya long ago. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s attempts to appoint former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as his special representative came up against an 11th-hour veto from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
Rival negotiating tracks by regional powers, particularly Egypt and Algeria, have also failed to produce any breakthrough. As a result, most channels of communication between eastern and western Libya have collapsed.
Russia is becoming increasingly involved, trying to fill the void left by the collapse of the U.N. track and the disinterest of both the Trump administration and the Europeans. It is unclear what Moscow really wants in Libya, but it seems to be pursuing a strategy that acknowledges the de facto partition of the country, promising both political and military support for Haftar’s battle in the east while signing contracts for oil and discussing business opportunities in commodities trading and future construction projects with the institutions in Tripoli. While there are reports that Russian special forces may be helping Haftar, there is still no evidence of decisive Russian military support for the LNA, and it is fair to say that the Kremlin is diversifying its political investment in the country by talking to all sides.
Russia’s increasing political backing and the anti-Islamist winds blowing in Washington have strengthened Haftar’s belief that there is no point in negotiating a political solution with the forces in western Libya. Despite heavy pressure from his Egyptian patrons, he refused to even meet the head of the Presidency Council, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, in Cairo on Feb. 14 to discuss a road map for negotiations. He has instead rededicated himself to his main goal of “fighting extremism” by stepping up pressure on Misratan forces in the south and the district of Jufra and by announcing an imminent — albeit unlikely — “liberation” of Tripoli.
Western Libya, meanwhile, is at risk of ever greater fragmentation. The Presidency Council has effectively been reduced to two of its originally nine members — Sarraj and his deputy, Ahmed Maiteeq — and lacks any real control of dynamics on the ground. The capital is dominated by a syndicate of militias that are now fighting against armed groups loyal to a rival government. Outside of Tripoli, a similar archipelago of local armed groups controls events on the ground.
Given the lack of desire to compromise in the east and lack of credible interlocutors in the west, a political settlement reuniting the country will likely prove elusive. If Libya and the international community hope to avoid a bloody new chapter in the civil war, they should focus on three tracks to be pursued in the short term, in parallel to the bigger-picture negotiations.
First, Libya needs a de-conflicting mechanism to avoid escalation. If the U.N. envoy cannot do it, someone else in the West should. What better opportunity for Britain to show its continued relevance after Brexit than this? Or why not the French foreign minister, who could beef up his legacy just weeks before leaving office? This should only be a temporary replacement for a fully functioning U.N. mission capable of working on reconciliation, local cease-fires, and monitoring human rights violations. Both a temporary negotiator and the U.N. could work on a number of confidence-building measures, such as establishing permanent channels of communication, liberating prisoners, reopening roads, and sharing humanitarian aid.
Second, the country needs what economist Hala Bugaighis calls a “Libyan Economic Agreement” on how to peacefully share its oil wealth. Libya sits on Africa’s biggest hydrocarbon reserves: In the run-up to the 2011 war, it produced 1.6 million barrels per day and accumulated more than $100 billion in reserves — a considerable amount for a population of 6 million. Much of the fighting in the last few years has revolved around oil installations or smuggling hubs. Negotiating a new social contract may take some time, but in the meantime, two measures would represent a good start: The government in Tripoli should strengthen financial support for all of Libya’s municipalities, including areas controlled by Haftar, and oil installations should be placed under the control of the independent National Oil Corporation in Tripoli, with attempts to establish parallel economic institutions punished by international sanctions.
Finally, Tripoli must be the heart of international efforts. The most pressing need is a plan to free the city of all heavy weapons, pushing militias to stock them outside of civilian-populated areas. This is an important condition to allow the Libyan government to operate and to facilitate international assistance.
These tasks are very difficult. The alternative, however, is a new escalation that would destroy what little is left of Libya’s institutions and create the conditions for the re-emergence of jihadi groups.
It will take a heavyweight like the United States to push Libya toward peace. Washington, with its enormous soft and hard power, could pressure all sides into an agreement while at the same time dissuading external actors from intervening in the country. The big question is whether the will exists in the Trump administration to get involved in Libya. The National Security Council, in reviewing U.S. policy in different areas, should consider the levers that the United States has in Libya and the importance of the country in countering terrorism and instability.
During the most recent Republican administration, under President George W. Bush, the United States pursued a pragmatic policy in Libya that succeeded in peacefully eliminating the country’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. It is hard to believe that Trump will be able to duplicate that model. Without swift international action, however, Libya appears poised for another round of violence. It may well be that we will look back at this moment in Libya and say that the medicine was there but no doctor had the courage to use it.
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